How many dandelions are too many? On the flip side, how much fertilizer and chemicals are we willing to use to eradicate them?
These are among the questions that leaders from agencies such as the Teton Conservation District, Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation and the Teton County Weed and Pest District want to answer as they attempt to usher in a new movement toward sustainable lawn management.
With fertilizer and pesticides seeping into surface and groundwater around Jackson Hole — problems likely to grow with the human population — resource managers are trying to lay the groundwork for a shift in landscaping practices.
“All around us, we know these issues exist, and we’re trying to be proactive,” said Carlin Girard, water resources specialist with the Teton Conservation District. “We do believe that there’s room for improvement here in this community.”
Girard, along with Andy Erskine, Parks and Rec parks manager, and Lesley Beckworth, landowner program coordinator for Weed and Pest, joined a panel Monday to start a community conversation about how best to tend private and public land around Teton County.
To some extent that means deciding what the community wants to see in its parks and lawns. Erskine believes Parks and Rec should lead the charge in upgrading landscaping techniques, and he wants to gather input on how to do so.
“What I do is dictated by what the public would like to see done,” he said.
To that end, he launched a landscaping survey last week, which can be found online at tinyurl.com/y2tt498k. It asks people how they use public parks, how they want Parks and Rec to manage those spaces and what the highest priorities ought to be, and how they feel about the status quo for landscaping in parks.
Parks and Rec decreased its use of fertilizer and chemicals this year compared to last, Erskine said, “and I feel like they look just as good as they did last year, with fewer inputs.” He said his department strives to put the overall health of its turf first, for example by “aerifying” and watering it properly, but he acknowledged that they can still do better.
“I would love to see parks that are maintained without any chemical inputs,” he said. “But if I started that tomorrow, our parks would look drastically different.”
The survey also asks how much fertilizer, water and chemicals landowners use on their own property. Girard noted that private property is actually the source of much of Jackson Hole’s pollution, since public lands in the valley are more strictly regulated.
U.S. Geological Survey research has shown that 22% of human-introduced nutrients — which can harm water quality and, in turn, wildlife health — in the Fish Creek watershed can be attributed to fertilizer applied by landowners.
“Our private lands are where a lot of our issues exist,” Girard said. “It’s about bringing the stewardship ethic that this community has for our public lands ... into the private land setting, and trying to think about our own little square as a potential for stewardship of natural resources.”
Girard said it’s possible to protect the environment while also maintaining attractive, manicured spaces, and he has found that most people are receptive to adjusting their own practices. He cited the Trout Friendly Lawns Program, an initiative that more than 100 individuals and a handful of businesses and nonprofits in Teton County have joined to minimize water pollution.
That community support is critical, he said, because solving the problem will have to be a team endeavor among a “very broad group of people.”
In engaging that group, efforts so far have largely been based on voluntary buy-in through the Trout Friendly program. But Paul Hansen, a longtime conservationist who writes a column for the Jackson Hole News&Guide and attended the panel discussion Monday, argued that local officials should regulate landscaping practices if they want to avoid environmental damage.
Although many have joined the Trout Friendly program, he noted that those conscientious owners’ lawns comprise only a small percentage of the private land in Teton County. He’s skeptical that leaving it up to individual choice will ever produce the critical mass necessary to significantly reduce pollution.
“We’ve solved some really big issues, but I can’t think of one we’ve solved with a voluntary approach,” Hansen said. “I think we need to be honest with ourselves that if this is a value we share, we need to have everybody participating.”
Erskine noted that even if elected officials did pursue regulations, it could take years to enact them.
In the meantime, he said, it makes sense to keep persuading people to take action.
“If we step away from the voluntary, personal responsibility aspect of it, I think we’re doing an injustice to the environment,” he said.
Beckworth explained that although pesticide use is already regulated at the state and federal level, it’s a tall order to enforce regulations with the current staffing — one person in charge of overseeing pesticide use for all of Wyoming.
“It’s really hard in a state of 500,000 people and one pesticide regulator ... to check on that,” she said.
Town Councilor Jim Stanford, who attended the panel discussion, didn’t rule out some form of landscaping mandate in the future. But he said the case for regulations would be more convincing after a voluntary movement.
“Regulation is something the town and county can consider,” Stanford said. “But what makes it effective is often that you’ve tried the voluntary approach and it hasn’t produced the desired results.”